Kelley - Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde Author(s): Robin D. G. Kelley Reviewed work(s): Source: Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, Vol. 3 (1997), pp. 13-27 Published by: Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College Chicago Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4177059 . Accessed: 13/03/2012 18:30 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College Chicago is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry. http://www.jstor.org
Kelley - Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde
Text of Kelley - Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-GardeAuthor(s): Robin D. G. KelleyReviewed work(s):Source: Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry, Vol. 3 (1997), pp. 13-27Published by: Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College ChicagoStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4177059 .Accessed: 13/03/2012 18:30
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range ofcontent in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].
Center for Black Music Research - Columbia College Chicago is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize,preserve and extend access to Lenox Avenue: A Journal of Interarts Inquiry.
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde Robin D. G. Kelley
A great song arose, the loveliest thing born this side the seas. It was a new song. It did not come from Africa, though the dark throb and beat of that Ancient of Days was in it and through it. It did not come from white America-never from so pale and hard and thin a thing, however deep these vulgar and surrounding tones had dri- ven. Not the Indies nor the hot South, the cold East or heavy West made that music. It was a new song and its deep and plaintive beau- ty, its great cadences and wild appeal wailed, throbbed and thun- dered on the world's ears with a message seldom voiced by man. It swelled and blossomed like incense, improvised and born anew out of an age long past, and weaving into its texture the old and new melodies in word and in thought.
- Du Bois (1935, 124)
W.E.B. Du Bois never had the opportunity to hear the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and I doubt he spent his last days in Ghana listen- ing to Ornette Coleman's FreeJazz or Cecil Taylor's Looking Ahead! But in my opinion, Du Bois has given us one of the best de- scriptions of the new music I have ever read, in the most important book about freedom published in the twentieth century written three decades before the Art Ensem- ble was born. This is not to say that Du Bois's poetic narrative of emancipation un- wittingly provides the necessary tools for an "integrative comprehension" of the Art En- semble's music. Rather, I suggest that his work offers the deepest, most profound comprehension of the historical experi- ences that inform their understanding of freedom. The Art Ensemble's music is, after all, an unfinished multivolume history of freedom-a self-conscious sonic memory of the Middle Passage, the overthrow of slav- ery, dance halls in the age ofJim Crow, mi- gration and city life, rebellion against bru- tality, and black love. Their music is all about freedom, political and aesthetic. On one hand, their experiments with form are
integral to their struggle for freedom and their challenge to the suffocating strictures of tradition. On the other hand, as products of (and by some accounts, actors in) the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, political freedom and justice drive their work. Their 1974 album Fanfare for the War- riors is dedicated to
the brothers all over the planet who have fought for the freedom of our people who have given their lives that Black men women and children may grow into a world free for All of us
(Art Ensemble of Chicago 1974)
Norman Weinstein's essay, "Steps To- ward an Integrative Comprehension of the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Music," in this issue, begins to capture these themes of freedom and historical memory in the Art Ensemble's music. In Weinstein's view, the Art Ensemble creates New World African
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music that quite literally stretches back to the ancients. He sees a timeless quality to their work: "One long sermon, with one chief focus, is told in myriad tongues and tales." What the Middle Passage enabled us to do, aside from creating wealth for a nation that would not allow us to share in it, was to forge new cultural forms out of many disparate pasts. That there are many "African" pasts is evident in the Art En- semble's music and performance practices, even if their crit- ics and fans do not recognize this. Their Pan-African sensi- bility allows them to claim ancestral roots in Senegal and Mali, southern Africa and Nubia, Congo Square and Chica- go's South Side.
Weinstein gestures at a framework for understanding how such hybrid forms can be woven together to create a seemingly seamless kente cloth of blackness. Instead of a framework, however, he proposes a rather vague yet pro- vocative idea, "a psychology of Africanizing imaginings, a poetics of African imagination." He begins to develop this idea in his book A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz (1993), but it is one that remains more descriptive than analytical. Nevertheless, this idea is important. Like many other cultural analysts trying to make sense of the African diaspora, Weinstein is asking us to move beyond cultural survivals from Africa and to explore how diasporic identities are constituted, reconstituted, and reproduced. Perhaps Benedict Anderson's notion of "an imagined community" (Anderson 1991, 6)-originally applied to nationalisms situ- ated in nation-states-might be useful for developing "a psy- chology of Africanizing imaginings," although it would re- quire substantive revision or qualification.' For our purpos- es, we might pay attention to Anderson's dictum that imag- ined communities "are to be distinguished, not by their fal- sity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imag- ined" (Anderson 1991, 6).
1. See also Lemelle and Kelley (1994). There are many limitations to the wholesale adoption of Anderson's ideas to the African diaspora. First, the diaspora is not a sovereign territory with established boundaries, al- though it is seen as "inherently limited" to people of African descent. Sec- ond, although there is no common language, there is a consistent effort to locate, no matter how mythical, a single culture with singular historical roots. Third, many members of this diaspora see themselves as an op- pressed "nation" without a homeland or imagine Africa as their (future?) home. Finally, linked to the search for a homeland is the fourth barrier to the wholesale adoption of Anderson's concept to the African diaspora. As Paul Gilroy points out in his seminal book, There Ain't No Blak in the Union Ja(k, most people outside Africa and the Caribbean live in countries where they are "external to and estranged from the imagined community" of the dominant culture (Gilroy 1987, 153).
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde 15
Consider, for example, the much-debated and much- maligned concept of "soul," a concept that both black avant- garde and black pop musicians of the day inherited. Con- trary to the claims of ghetto ethnographers, "soul" was not a thing or an essence one possessed; it was a discourse through which African Americans, at a particular historical moment (1960s and 1970s), claimed ownership of the sym- bols and practices of their own imagined community. Thus, even at the height of the Black Power movement, African- American urban culture could be fluid, hybrid, and multina- tional. During the 1970s, Nehru suits were as popular and as "black" as dashikis in Harlem as well as in Chicago, and mar- tial arts films placed Bruce Lee among a pantheon of black heroes. As debates over the black aesthetic raged, the con- cept of soul was an assertion that there are "black ways" of doing things, even if those ways are contested and the boundaries around what is "black" are fluid.2
But more than style itself, hegemonic institutions con- struct and maintain systems of knowledge and information that reproduce the imagined community, a sense of national obligation, patriotism, and familiarity necessary for the suc- cess of nationalism. Because these systems operate both globally and within the nation-state, they have a tremendous effect on the construction of a diasporic identity in terms of subverting or contesting this transnational and racialized "imagined community" and in reproducing it. Valentin Mudimbe (1988) makes an even stronger case for the role of dominant systems of power and thought in the construc- tion of a hybrid diasporic identity. He asserts that Africa, as a coherent ideological and political entity, was indeed in- vented with the advent of European expansion, and it has been continuously reinvented by traditional African and di- asporic intellectuals as well as metropolitan intellectuals and ideological apparatuses such as educational institutions and their attendant disciplines. After all, Malachi Favors Maghos- tut, regarded by the Art Ensemble as the resident expert on Africa, obtained much of his information through libraries and bookstores. Academically trained anthropologists were responsible for the first wave of recorded African music, and the U.S. State Department made possible some exchanges between African-American and African musicians during the 1950s.
To understand the Art Ensemble's poetics of African imagination with some specificity, however, one must take intellectual history and biography seriously. Ronald
2. These ideas are developed in Kelley (1997).
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Radano's book on Anthony Braxton does this well. Indeed, in Weinstein's search for some African-derived interpretive framework, some non-Western alternative to the academic West, he gives short shrift to some of Radano's insights of the degree to which black members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) drew ideas from radical theory and philosophy, postwar modernism, and European composers such as Pierre Boulez and Karl- heinz Stockhausen. Although AACM members dismissed critics who pointed to John Cage as a major influence on their work, apparently Joseph Jarman collaborated with Cage for a concert in 1966. As Radano (1993, 109) points out, assertions of blackness and the incorporation of mod- ernism are not mutually exclusive: "By the 1960s, free musi- cians had transformed the modernist aesthetic for their own uses, recasting it to assert a specifically black-oriented artistry."3
In other words, the AACM and the Art Ensemble are not merely vessels for reconstructing African memory and art in a North American context but are a product of (as well as a force in) the political, social, and cultural history of the postwar black world. The Art Ensemble created a "new song" unlike what had come before, "improvised and born anew out of an age long past," in Du Bois's words. This new song took root in a particular place and time, the product of a specific set of political, intellectual, and cultural conver- gences. Any approach to "comprehending" the Art Ensem- ble or, for that matter, any aspect of black music, must begin by treating the musicians as intellectuals in the world not as mere vessels of timeless cultural transmission. Imagine the problems inherent in adopting a strict African-centered ap- proach to the music of Sun Ra. As Sun Ra himself said: "It's more than avant-garde, because the 'avant-garde' refers to, I suppose, advanced earth music. But this is not earth music" (quoted in Corbett 1994, 19). As the works of Sterling Stuckey, Olly Wilson, Samuel Floyd, and others have persua- sively demonstrated, black musicians, including Sun Ra, work within and against deeply held traditions. Yet, as these authors acknowledge, traditions are products of specific his- tories, contexts, and cultural developments. Thus, I offer a few thoughts-some familiar, others not-about the impor-
3. See also Jost (1994, 167-168). AACM trumpeter Leo Smith, for in- stance, vehemently rejected the idea that Cage could have influenced these musicians (quoted in Wilmer 1980, 113). Guthrie Ramsey's work on Bud Powell (1994), Eric Porter's forthcoming dissertation on the political and aesthetic ideas of postwar jazz musicians, and Nanette deJong's work on the AACM (all current or former University of Michigan students) also adopt an approach to their subjects that takes intellectual history seriously.
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde 17
tance of these contexts for comprehending the Art Ensem- ble's music.
Going to Chicago (by Way of New York)
This dance will jitterbug you Chicago Your policemen will flee The illustrious "scaly anteater" known to pecanpie elite by its rightful name pangolin Believe You Me I Am NOT Who You Think I Am!
(Joans 1989; 86)
Most writers begin with black Chicago. Next to New York, Chicago was the obvious center for radical black arts and was a prime target of the first and second great migrations, deeply immersed in the traditions of the blues. In the riot- torn Chicago of the late 1960s, Black Panthers Fred Hamp- ton and Mark Clark were blown away in their sleep by po- lice, the Black Liberation Army found a sympathetic follow- ing, and the AACM held free concerts on the beach and at- tracted a rather large black audience for this new music. But this is only part of the story. In some respects, many of the Art Ensemble's musical ideas-and even some of their polit- ical ideas-were formed long before Chicago's ghetto re- belled in 1968 or even before Watts exploded three years earlier. Art Ensemble members Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, and Malachi Favors came of age in the late 1950s, not the 1960s; the latter three met while stu- dents at Wilson Junior College in Chicago. As early as 1961, Mitchell, Jarman, and Favors, along with Henry Threadgill, Jack DeJohnette, Muhal Richard Abrams, pianistJodie Christian, and drummer Steve McCall were exploring new musical ideas together. Under the intellectual and spiritual leadership of Muhal Richard Abrams, by 1963 the group be- came known as the Experimental Band. They explored the ideas of Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, experimented with group improvisation based on linear rather than har- monic elements, and embraced the atonal, abstract features of postwar modernism. More important is that they were drawn to a nascent cultural nationalism from the very begin- ning, celebrating their African heritage through aesthetic spiritualism. As Radano (1993, 101) explains, "Aesthetic spiritualism represented a confluence of observations on African musical practice with a countercultural quest for self-expression and spiritual freedom" (see also de Jong 1993;Jost 1994, 163-179; Litweiler 1984, 172-199; Lock 1989, 32-55; and Wilmer 1980, 112-126).
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But what do we really know about the cultural under- ground in Chicago during the late 1950s, besides some oblique references to Sun Ra? A generation earlier Chicago was, after all, the home of Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, and they occasionally associated with people like Nelson Algren. Writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Mar- garet Burroughs were fixtures in Chicago during the 1950s, but to characterize them as Chicago's Black Bohemians might be a stretch.
Of course, these developments were not unique to Chicago. The new musical developments that eventually gave rise to the AACM and the Art Ensemble reflect a larg- er, international cultural movement that stretched from Accra to Los Angeles. For want of a better term, I call this movement (although it was perhaps more of a sensibility than a movement) Black Bohemia. Cutting across genres- from visual art to literature, from theater to the multimedia experiments of performance artists-Black Bohemia stood at the cutting edge of postwar modernism. Members of this modern movement frequently ignored boundaries between art forms and sought multiple means of expression. Surreal- ist 'jazz" poet Ted Joans started as a painter, toyed with the trumpet, and ultimately turned to poetry as his primary cre- ative voice. Painter-turned-collagist Romare Bearden more than dabbled in music; he wrote songs and shares credit with Billy Eckstein for the song "Seabreeze." The white artists were no different. Painter Larry Rivers played saxo- phone in ajazz combo every chance he got, andJack Kerouac put his mark on quite a few canvases.
LeRoi Jones, Ted Joans, Jayne Cortez, a young Harold Cruse, a young Audre Lorde, A. B. Spellman, Lorraine Hansberry, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, and musi- cians such as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Horace Tap- scott, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Charles Mingus were notjust precursors to the Black Arts Move- ment; they were the Black Arts Movement.4 If we can agree that the Black Arts Movement is not defined by race riots and dashikis but by a self-conscious collective effort to pro- mote black art for black communities, art about liberation and freedom, then we should push our chronology back to the mid-1950s. For instance, radical black musicians formed collectives for both economic security and artistic collabora- tion in the 1950s and early 1960s, developing structures for cooperative work that anticipated the Black Arts Move- ment's efforts of the late 1960s. Before the AACM was Charles Mingus's Jazz Workshop and his efforts to create his own record label. Sun Ra and his Arkestra initially estab- lished its collective in Chicago but left the city in 1961. That same year, Horace Tapscott, a brilliant avant-garde pianist from Los Angeles, formed the Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension (UGMAA) and led the Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra. Tapscott, who later recorded with Black Panther Party leader Elaine Brown, believed that the prima-
4. One of the few essays that actually pushes the chronology back a bit is Lorenzo Thomas's insightful "Ascension: Music and the Black Arts Move- ment" (1995).
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde 19
ry role of the UGMAA should be "to preserve music, Black music" (quoted in de Jong 1993, 10). Similar black collec- tives popped up in Detroit and St. Louis, and New York mu- sicians formed the short-lived interracial Jazz Composers Guild (see deJong 1993, 10; Jost 1994, 107-121; Levin 1965, 18; Litweiler 1984, 183-187; Lock 1989, 34; Such 1993, 82-84; and Wilmer 1980, 213-227).
Black Bohemia was not white Bohemia in blackface. Just read young Amiri Baraka's jazz writings before Blues People. In his 1961 essay "The Jazz Avant-Garde," he attempts to theorize a black modernism, refusing to treat modernism as foreign to African-American reality, as some rarefied Euro- pean tool from which Negro musicians borrow or mimic. "We are, all of us," he wrote, "moderns, whether we like it or not" (Baraka 1967, 70).5 It is a profound observation too often overlooked by critics obsessed with Baraka's cultural nationalism. Although the black avant-garde of that period often associated with the white Beat poets, were familiar with European concert music, and read Andre Breton and Albert Camus along with Leopold Senghor and Aime Ce- saire, the influence went both ways. White artists of the counterculture of the 1950s looked to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, sought outJames Baldwin and Ted joans, and chased down Romare Bearden and Elizabeth Catlett. Si- multaneously, "black moderns" were doing their own thing, looking all across the Atlantic for ideas and inspiration. Bearden did not need Jackson Pollack or Stuart Davis to tell him about Vermeer or Matisse. Monk and Parker did not learn about Igor Stravinsky or B6la Bart6k through Gerry Mulligan, or through Gunther Schuller, for that matter. They claimed these artists as their own, entered their work with the same sense of entitlement that Toussaint L'Ouver- ture felt for Republican France. Charles Mingus was every- where doing everything, incorporating the spoken word, writing poetry, exploring the piano, and proposing a differ- ent sort of classical/jazz fusion that was more respectful to- ward black musical traditions than the experiments of the "Third Stream" composers. Cecil Taylor was up and down the cultural landscape, bringing abstract expressionism to the jazz underground, incorporating insights from dance and literature, and introducing other young musicians to
5. My debt to Paul Gilroy's The Bla(k Atlantic: Modernity and Double Con- s(i)usness (1993) should be obvious throughout this essay. In some ways, his book develops Baraka's insights, yet there is a distinction between Gilroy's interest in modernity, broadly speaking, and my own focus on modernist aesthetic developments emerging in the twentieth century (early or mid, depending on the genre).
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art, film, and new musical developments. Yet many of these artists felt no shame in exclaiming to the world that their art spoke to a black reality and reflected a black experience. It was out of Black Bohemia, not the Black Power movement, that Baraka, then still LeRoi Jones, wrote Blues People, a man- ifesto for black liberation music. And for those like Baraka and A. B. Spellman, two leading literary proponents of the new music, the most important teacher was probably the brilliant poet and bodacious critic Sterling Brown, perhaps Howard University's most radical faculty member.6
Here, among black poets, writers, and musicians of the 1950s, the emancipation of form coincided with the African freedom movement. It was the age of Mau Mau, armed struggle in the Cameroon, independence for Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana, the Bandung conference, and the cre- ation of the Organization of African Unity. It was also cul- ture very much inspired by the freedom movement here and abroad. As Weinstein acknowledges in his important book, A Night in Tunisia (1993), the Civil Rights movement, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and the emergence of newly independent African nations find voice in Randy Weston's Uhuru Afrika; Max Roach's We Insist: Free- dom Now Suite; Art Blakey's "Message from Kenya" and "Ritu- al"; Sonny Rollins's "Airegin"; andJohn Coltrane's "Liberia," "Dahomey Dance," and "Africa." These pieces were all writ- ten between 1953 and 1961. The rekindling of black solidar- ity with Africa, particularly among Black Bohemia, was not just a matter of bloodlines; on the contrary, it was a matter of blood spilled. Revolutionary political movements com- bined with revolutionary experiments in artistic creation- the simultaneous embrace and rejection of tradition- forged the strongest physical and imaginary links between Africa and the diaspora.7
Although one might argue that these primarily East Coast stories say little about the Chicago scene or the
6. Some of these insights are drawn from conversations with Amiri Baraka (1995), TedJoans (1995), and Steve Lacy (1995); see also Edwards (1996) and Schwartzman (1990, chapter 4); on black music, surrealism, and black surrealists, see Garon (1975) and Rosemont (1989).
7. The impact of these events on African-American politics is well doc- umented. For a specific discussion of how African freedom movements im- pacted black musicians, see Radano (1993, 64-65, 99-101), Simone (1993, 80-95), and Weinstein (1993). For a general discussion of how these devel- opments in Africa reshaped postwar black politics in the United States, see especially Cruse (1968, 73), Esedebe (1982), Geiss (1974), Harris (1982), Krafona (1986), Magubane (1987), von Eschen (1997), and Weisbord (1973).
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde 21
AACM, I disagree. First, we know more about New York simply because it has been studied in greater depth and be- cause Greenwich Village was the undisputed capital of Bo- hemia. But what do we really know about the cultural un- derground in Chicago during the late 1950s, besides some oblique references to Sun Ra? A generation earlier Chicago was, after all, the home of Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, and they occasionally associated with people like Nelson Algren. Writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Mar- garet Burroughs were fixtures in Chicago during the 1950s, but to characterize them as Chicago's Black Bohemians might be a stretch. Second, we should not make too much of regional differences. Black Bohemians not only crossed genres, they crossed states. Musicians, writers, and artists traveled easily in this age, and even when they were not physically present, their work was.
For example, Joseph Jarman began writing poetry after meeting Allen Ginsberg and the youthful LeRoi Jones (Baraka) some time in the 1950s. He truly embodied the spirit of Black Bohemia (see Jarman 1967; Litweiler 1984, 179-180; and Radano 1993, 81).8 An intermittent drama stu- dent at the Second City Theater School and the Art Insti- tute of Chicago, Jarman has been combining improvisation- al music and spoken word since his early days in Abrams's Experimental Band. An early recorded example is Jarman's "Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City" (1966), which, accord- ing to musician/critic Ekkehard Jost, succeeded in ways that most "'jazz and poetry' experiments involving words and music not written for each other" failed. Jost (1994, 172) writes: "There are passages in this piece in which parallel spans of verbal and musical tension are created, when Joseph Jarman as reciter achieves an emotional intensifica- tion by repeating sentences and words, setting off a match- ing rhythmic-dynamic compression in the music.... Fur- thermore, there are passages in Jarman's Aspects when the speaking voice not only has something to say verbally, but clearly dominates as a rhythmic (and thus musical) element, while the players provide a diffuse, undelineated back- ground of sounds."
While Jarman experimented with poetry, Roscoe Mitchell (not to mention fellow AACM trombonist Lester Lashley) took up painting. One of Mitchell's pieces graces the cover of Lester Bowie's album Numbers 1 & 2. Together, Jarman and Mitchell turned their talents into performance
8. Jarman published a collection of his poems in a two-volume book entitled Black Ca5e (1977).
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art. The Roscoe Mitchell Quartet, precursor to the Art En- semble, staged politically charged theatrical experiments along with their musical explorations. As John Litweiler (1984, 178) explained: "Poets sometimes read, or a player in a Lyndon Johnson mask would appear, bowing and gestur- ing grandiosely-Mitchell would demolish him with a cus- tard pie. One concert opened with Favors playing banjo while drummer Abdullah Yakub (Leonard Smith) danced with a huge Raggedy Ann Doll and [Phillip] Wilson stalked him with a shotgun."
Black Bohemia contributed profoundly to the mod- ernist, multimedia qualities that have come to characterize the Art Ensemble's performances. More important is that Black Bohemia helped create their audience, an audience that could find their work both intellectually engaging and politically relevant. Even the venues began to change: Abrams's Experimental Band found performance space at the Abraham Lincoln Center, a community center on the South Side of Chicago, as well as at the University of Chica- go (Jost 1994, 165; Radano 1993, 83). But to understand the significance of their performance practices and thus move closer to an integrative comprehension of the Art Ensem- ble's music, we need to pay more attention to their poetry and visual art. Are methodologies from literary, dramaturgi- cal, and art criticism appropriate for such an endeavor? How do we make sense of the relationship between their po- etry, visual art, and performance practices and their music? Or do we treat these forms separately?
In short, we need to know much more about the mem- bers of the Art Ensemble as artists and intellectuals. What did they read when they were growing up? Did they, like An- thony Braxton, share their generation's passion for popular science fiction, technology, and comic books? Given the im- portance of science fiction motives grafted onto romanti- cized images of ancient Africa in the performances of Sun Ra, George Clinton, and Lee "Scratch" Perry, it is not unrea- sonable to believe that postwar sci-fi literature might explain some of the Art Ensemble's theatrics, not to mention some of their musical directions. After all, "Great Black Music: An- cient to the Future" is evocative of time travel from the pyra- mids to the space age. Perhaps this explains Lester Bowie's famous white lab coat sharing the stage with Jarman, Malachi Favors, and Famoudou Don Moye's signature African garb and painted faces.9
9. Radano (1993, 39-40) makes the point about Braxton's interest in science fiction, science-related television programs, and comic books (see
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde 23
Although I believe that Black Bohemia has had a pro- found impact on the Art Ensemble's music as well as its re- ception, my speculations are focused on understanding the political, intellectual, and cultural milieus that led to their early work together. And even on this question, the rise of Black Bohemia does not explain everything. For example, we might consider how much of the black avant-garde's rad- ical politics can be attributed to the military. It is striking how many AACM and "free" musicians served in the U.S. Army or Air Force during the 1950s and early 1960s. Mitchell andJarman both served in the armed forces; the former played in an army band while stationed in Germany. During Mitchell's stint in Germany, he apparently had the opportunity to hear a very young Albert Ayler, who had begun to embrace the free jazz movement during his three- year tour of duty (1958-1961). Stationed at Fort Knox with Mitchell was drummer and future sideman Beaver Harris. Anthony Braxton joined the army in 1963, played in the Fifth Army Band while stationed in Highland Park, Illinois, and laterjoined the Eighth Army Band during his tour of duty in Korea. In his words, the army unintentionally en- riched his music and his thinking by opening "up a broader world perspective" than he had known living in Chicago's South Side (quoted in Lock 1989, 41; see also Radano 1993, 54-60). The military also created new possibilities for West Coast avant-garde trumpeter Bobby Bradford, who played in an air force band from 1954 to 1958. Baraka (1963, 215) stated that "the fifties took on their own peculiar forebod- ing shape because of the grim catalyst of the Korean War and the emotional chaos that went with it. The Negro could not help but be affected; neither could his music." Baraka was speaking from experience; he served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s (see Baraka 1963, 215; Litweiler 1992, 50; and Wilmer 1980, 98-100). "'
A central point to my musings is that any attempt to develop, in Weinstein's words, "a psychology of Africanizing imaginings, a poetics of African imagination" must begin with the historical contexts of those doing the imagining. The musicians drawn to the AACM created and learned within a specific cultural and political milieu, one in which
The beauty of the Art Ensem- ble is not their uncanny ability to meld "traditional" African culture and the faded memo- ries ofjuke joints with mod- ernist experiments in sound and theater to create some wonderfully hybrid postmod- ern pastiche. Rather, the Art Ensemble has re-invented mod- ernism through meditations and reflections on the mean- ings offreedom. In addition, they have moved Africa and its sprawling diaspora from being the "counter" modern (the primitive/the folk) to the very center of modernity. They claimed modernism for black people, without apology.
also Corbett 1994, 7-24; Lock 1989, 40). Braxton studied philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago. By his own account, he was introduced to Freud, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov by an Asian-American woman intellectual named Shosana Ori (quoted in Lock 1989, 41).
10. On the impact of the black military experience in the 1950s on the emerging black movement, see Lipsitz (1988, 39-63).
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poets, artists, and musicians experimented with form, debat- ed across the color line, and questioned the very meaning of art. The new aspect is that these developments took place at a time when the entire black world was in revolt. Mod- ernism was integral to that revolt, not a separate stream flowing from the European avant-garde to the rest of the world. Postwar modernism and its prodigal daughter post- modernism are only partly a meditation on the meaning of freedom in a high-tech world in -the aftermath of fascism; the modernist aesthetic was profoundly shaped by the war to end colonialism andJim Crow. These historical develop- ments clearly shaped black modernism in the postwar peri- od, but it was not limited to black people. In short, the beauty of the Art Ensemble is not their uncanny ability to meld "traditional" African culture and the faded memories ofjuke joints with modernist experiments in sound and the- ater to create some wonderfully hybrid postmodern pas- tiche. Rather, the Art Ensemble has re-invented modernism through meditations and reflections on the meanings of freedom. In addition, they have moved Africa and its sprawl- ing diaspora from being the "counter" modern (the primi- tive/the folk) to the very center of modernity. They claimed modernism for black people, without apology.
Although these are perhaps wild assertions, they are worth exploring. Weinstein's proposed "integrated compre- hension" of the Art Ensemble needs to explore these ques- tions. A "poetics of African imaginings" cannot be created nor understood in the abstract; it is a product of both the cultural milieu in which these artists create and the history that preceded them. Those histories, or at least an acknowl- edgment of them, are remarkably absent from Weinstein's reflections. I believe that the Art Ensemble of Chicago can- not be understood outside of African-American history, and thus, by extension, African-American history cannot be un- derstood outside of modernism. Although this may seem ob- vious to scholars of black culture, given the growing conser- vative climate in popular jazz discourse, the jazz avant-garde has been increasingly marginalized, its history and purpose distorted. Conservative critics like Stanley Crouch have dis- missed groups like the Art Ensemble for having no links to community, an ironic claim if we compare the AACM's con- tinuing effort to provide music education to inner-city kids with the rarefied atmosphere of the Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts. As the history ofjazz is rewritten by the new critics, I fear that the Art Ensemble's political agenda will be ig- nored and their communal, political, and cultural moorings will be left unrecognized. Unfortunately, even their biggest
Dig They Freedom: Meditations on History and the Black Avant-Garde 25
fans, advocates, and defenders couch the Art Ensemble's work in such mysticism that they unwittingly reinforce the neoconservative dismissal of their music. Beyond teaching the young, giving the community a fresh musical presence, and keeping alive an aural history of the black world, their immediate goals are not far removed from what Monk was trying to do, what Coltrane and Coleman were trying to do, indeed, what Eric B. and Rakim were trying to do: to give us a "new song," to create what we have not heard before and yet weave the familiar into these new structures of sound. This is not about reproducing those halcyon Blue Note and Prestige days. "It's meaningless to repeat what one of the masters has done, note for note," Jarman explained with respect to the Art Ensemble's Dreaming of the Masters series. "We are not as good as the master was by repeating his notes.... We need to play our own music and incorporate the master's ideas, but show they're an influence, not an affliction" (quoted in Mandel 1991). Let us hope that the tools we develop to comprehend the music will not be an affliction either.
The author would like to thank Diedra Harris-Kelley, Ted Joans, Steve Lacy, Amiri Baraka, Dwight Andrews, Guy Ramsey, Eric Porter, Ron Radano, Kyra Gaunt, Nanette de Jong, and the entire Columbia University Jazz Study Group. This article is dedicated to the memory of Marc Craw- ford, writer, activist, and jazz critic extraordinaire (1933-1996).
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